The world’s best smart cities don’t just adopt new technology: they make it work for people

Well that one is just way too small: a smart cities expo in India. Image: Getty.

Cities are fast becoming “smart”, and the impact on people’s lives can be immense. Singapore’s smart traffic cameras restrict traffic depending on volume, and ease the commute of thousands of passengers every day. In Kaunas, Lithuania, the cost of parking is automatically deducted from the bank accounts of drivers when they park their cars. In many cities, the timing of public buses is announced at each stop with almost perfect accuracy. And free WiFi is now accessible across entire cities, including Buenos Aires, Argentina and Ramallah, Palestine.

Today, improving urban services through digital transformation is a huge industry, dominated by the likes of Cisco and IBM. But the idea of a “smart city” encompasses more than the clever application of technology in urban areas. That technology must also contribute to making cities more sustainable, and improving the quality of life for the people who live there.

That’s why a team of researchers from IMD in Switzerland and SUTD in Singapore – including myself – put together the Smart City Index. For the first time, we attempted to assess people’s perceptions of technology – as opposed to the quality of the technology itself – as a way to characterise the “smartness” of a city. We did this by conducting a massive survey among citizens of 102 cities, to assess how favourably they viewed the technology made available to them.

Problems with perceptions

Take Paris, for instance – a city which has embarked on an ambitious project to redesign its urban landscape. The initiative – called Reinventer Paris – started by receiving suggestions from citizens about how to use and renovate obsolete and disused buildings. At the same time, the velib public bike-sharing program introduced about 14,000 bicycles into regular use throughout the city, with the aim of alleviating congestion and reducing pollution.

But more than five years after its introduction, citizens are still not feeling the benefits. Our smart city index ranks Paris 51st out of 102 cities in the world, in terms of the ability of the city’s technology to improve lives. Our participants from Paris gave their city a low score of 22 out of 100 – where zero indicates total disagreement and 100 signifies complete agreement – in response to the statement that “air pollution is not a problem”. By contrast, citizens of Zurich gave their city a score of 60 in response the same statement.

And although Reinventer Paris was specifically designed to be a bottom-up, participatory process, Parisians give a score of 36 out of 100 to the statement that “residents provide feedback on local government projects”. By comparison, the city of Auckland received a score of 71 from its residents, putting it in sixth place in the overall ranking.


The global picture

Only to the extent that digital technologies make a meaningful difference to people’s lives, can cities efficiently become smart. Our ranking puts Singapore, Zurich, Oslo, Geneva and Copenhagen in the top five, followed by Auckland, Taipei, Helsinki, Bilbao and Dusseldorf. Cities at the bottom of the ranking are all in developing economies or emerging markets, including Bogota, Cairo, Nairobi, Rabat and Lagos.

We were surprised to find that cities well known globally for their adoption of new technology did not make it to the top of the ranking. This was the case for several cities in China – which have received intensive investment from the Chinese government to increase their access to technology – including Nanjin (ranked 55), Guangzhou (57) and Shanghai (59). Likewise, Tokyo shows up in 62nd position, New York City in 38th and Tel Aviv in 46th place.

Smaller, smarter

Smart cities only make sense when technology meets citizens’ needs. A bike-sharing scheme will only seem useful if the city’s infrastructure facilitates cycling – and believe me, only the brave would dare cross Place Charles de Gaulle in Paris at noon on a bike.

At the same time, people recognise when technology solves a problem, because their lives get better. In an extensive study of 16 cities – published in our new book Sixteen Shades of Smart – we found that Medellin has become a very successful smart city because technology targets citizens’ main problem – safety. Similarly, without massive investment, public WiFi in Ramallah has done more for its people by providing them with access to the outside world in a walled city, than any air pollution monitoring system.

We have also found that large cities and megacities find it difficult to become smart. Most of the cities on the top of our ranking are mid-size cities. It is easy to extend the benefits of technology to people in San Francisco (ranked number 12 with a population of 884,000) and Bilbao (ninth, with a population of 350,000); but it is much more difficult to do the same in Los Angeles (35th, population of 4m) and Barcelona (48th, population of 5.5m).

There are 29 cities in the world with a population of more than 10m (including their metropolitan area), and that’s expected to grow to 43 by 2030. The differences between cities – even those in the same country – will continue to grow, as leaders seek out digital solutions to urban problems. But the real test will be whether citizens feel the benefits.

The Conversation

Arturo Bris, Professor of Finance, International Institute for Management Development (IMD)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.